In the film’s final act, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) stands covered in blood and laments to his sister-in-law: “It’s all falling part.” He could very well have been taking about Suburbicon.
With a prestigious cast bringing to life a story written by the Coen Brothers, it’s hard to understand how the film is such a mess. The film takes place in the eponymous Suburbicon, which is your typical idyllic 1950s US suburban neighbourhood. However, beneath this unblemished veneer lies bigotry and rancour, evident immediately when we see various residents horrified by the appearance of the Mayers family – African-American newcomers to the community.
Meanwhile, Clooney presents to us the Mayers’ neighbours: the Lodge family, consisting of Gardner, his wife Rose and her identical twin Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore), and the Lodge’s son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). At night, two men break into the family’s home, with unknown intentions. Tragedy strikes, and the remainder of the story focuses on how the Lodges cope with the aftermath of the home invasion, as dark secrets are unveiled.
The concept is fantastic, and those of you who have seen the trailers will doubtlessly have caught a whiff of a noir-caper scent which the Coen Brothers’ films often emanate. Yet it saddens me to say that Suburbicon falls devastatingly short of emulating the Coen’s directorial devilish charm. There are scenes where Clooney comes excruciatingly close to hitting gold – scrutiny from both Chief Hightower (Jack Conley) and insurance claims investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) hark back to vintage Coen Brothers, as do the Laurel & Hardy duo of the two mobsters played by Alex Hassell and Glen Fleshler.
Frustratingly, these are but fleeting moments and cameos, which are criminally underused and dismissed. Isaac’s Bud Cooper – almost definitely inspired by Double Indemnity’s Barton Keyes (incidentally a film which Suburbicon is doubtlessly indebted to) – is by far the most interesting and slippery character in the film, yet he lasts a mere 10-15 minutes. Hassell and Fleshler stick around for slightly longer than Isaac, but are still injected sparingly into the plot.
Clooney’s decision to throw themes of post-war racial prejudice into the mix is interesting and definitely one I was intrigued to see woven into the fabric of the story. Unfortunately, the side plot which follows the Mayers merely co-exists with the main thread, and at times it’s as if the two sets of neighbours are playing tug-of-war for both screen-time and narrative importance. There is even the suspicion that Clooney has used these issues of race and equality to give the film a certain award-appeal, or perhaps he felt the film needed an extra ‘layer’ to avoid inevitable comparisons to the plot of Fargo (1996).
It is not solely this aspect which contributes to Suburbicon’s crisis of identity, however. The tone of the film sporadically darts from comedy to social drama and back, never truly settling in a specific genre. Audiences hoping for a noir-comedy will be disappointed by the lack of devilish humour which the trailer promised, whilst those expecting a powerful Civil-Rights drama will be offended by the juxtaposition between the serious moments of the Mayers’ narrative and the Coen-esque caper moments.
Earlier this month Murder on the Orient Express saw a terrific cast carry a very ordinary production. Julianne Moore does her best to follow suit, and 13 year-old Noah Jupe is scarily convincing as a child who begins to suspect foul play amid the older members of his family. Damon however seems weirdly uninterested and aside from the film’s opening act, his performance is highly forgettable.
Suburbicon is an odd concoction with splashes of Fargo and Double Indemnity accompanied by social themes which appear to be a satire of twenty-first century United States, rather than a historical portrait of the 1950s. It entertains but drastically fails to deliver on a scale expected from a Clooney-Coen collaboration. Serious contender for Disappointment of the Year.